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'Buck Rogers' serial soars again on DVD 70 years later

Doug Nye
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Before there was Luke Skywalker or James T. Kirk or even Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers was patrolling the planets to make the solar system safe for humankind.

Buck first blasted off in a daily newspaper comic strip Jan. 7, 1939, and went on to become a pop icon. Ten years later, Universal Pictures brought the space hero to the screen in a 12-chapter serial.

In celebration of that event, VCI Entertainment has released a sparkling two-disc DVD 70th anniversary edition ($29.99) of the cliffhanger starring Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers. The picture quality is first-rate and the second disc contains numerous entertaining extras.

The serial gives us a marvelous look at how people of the 1930s envisioned the future. There are all sorts of neat gizmos such as ray guns, anti-gravity belts and transporter machines; the latter nearly 30 years before "Star Trek" made the "Beam me up, Scotty" line famous.

Chapter One, "Tomorrow's World," opens with Buck and his pal Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran) piloting a dirigible through a dangerous blizzard. It ices up and plunges toward the earth. Once it crashes, an avalanche of snow covers the dirigible. Prior to impact, Buddy manages to turn on nivaro gas, something that supposedly induces suspended animation.

Airplanes spend months searching for the crash but with no luck. The years speed by and finally stop at 2440. A spaceship lands near the buried dirigible, now partly visible because of some melted snow. Two men make their way inside and are astonished to find inhabitants there.

Buck and Buddy are alive thanks to the nivaro gas. Imagine their surprise when they discover 500 years have elapsed since the crash. Soon they meet Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) and Doctor Huer (C. Montague Shaw), part of a group of citizens living in the Hidden City. They are there to combat Killer Kane (Anthony Warde), a racketeer who now rules most of the world.

Thus begins the adventures of Buck Rogers in the 25th century. The special effects of "Buck Rogers" pale in comparison to today's movie computer wizardry, but they have a special charm and are fun to watch.

Among the extras are "The History of Buck Rogers," "Buster Crabbe The All-American Hero," a 1993 short "Buck Rogers and the Tiger Men from Mars," the first two episodes of the Buck Rogers radio show and a panel discussion on the comic strip. Liner notes include two Buck Rogers daily comic strips.

"Buck Rogers" can be ordered at www.vcient.com or by calling 1-800-331-4077.

The original comic strip, created by Phil Nowlan and drawn by Dick Calkins, had a run of 38 years (1929-1967) and spawned dozens of toys, books, comic books, two TV series and the radio show which ran from 1932 to 1947.

The serial's star, Buster Crabbe, won a swimming gold medal at the 1932 Olympics and was noted for his many action roles. He starred in more than 50 Westerns, nine serials and dozens of other genres. When he took on the role of Buck Rogers, Crabbe was already familiar with science-fiction sagas. He had already played another comic strip spaceman, Flash Gordon, in two serials and would also play him again in a third.

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